Sunday, July 31, 2016

Intimating Irwin

   Yes, in case you are wondering, it took a minute or two to find a proper header for this one.

  The Borough

    Although the Borough of Irwin was claimed to of begun in simple form at an earlier date, from Jacktown Hill to Veterans Bridge, it was incorporated back in 1864. Located on Route 30 twenty-two miles southeast of Pittsburgh and nearly a square mile in size, the borough lies near the geographical center of North Huntington township. The township holds the honor of being a part of Westmoreland County when it was created out of Bedford in 1773.


   The Forbes Road lay to the north and the Braddock Road was further to the southwest, but as a Reverend Dietrich once pointed out in no uncertain terms, this did not deter early settlers from finding in the Brush Creek Valley between the Big Sewickley Creek and Turtle Creek an ideal position for living quarters: "It must have been an inspiring sight to view its winding expanse from some high ridge as the lone explorer crossed the surrounding water-shed to see the irregular hills and dales, carpeted with the original forests in shades of green and brown."

   In a rather unique situation with the unanimous decision of the council in 2013, the borough purchased the Lamp Theater from The Westmoreland Cultural Trust for the price of one whole dollar to hold on to a grant for $500,000 while matching the funds needed for this acquisition. Quite a feat in itself. Last year they even drew in a big talent from this region with The Clark's.

   One mile to the west of the Pennsylvania Turnpike they perform quality Concerts in the Park at the Irwin Park Amphitheater, properly enough named, precisely at 6:30 in the milder months of the year. This has been taking place, without fail, (as far as I am aware), for twenty-six years to date. These concerts bring in talent from all around the region and are FREE to the public to attend and enjoy, (brought to you by the Irwin Civic Activities Committee).


Downtown Irwin looking north from Main and Fourth Street intersections


 As the borough developed into the late 1800's, later concerns of Irwin centered around the large coal deposits, the Westmoreland Coal, controlled by George Ross Scull, and the Penn Gas Coal companies being two examples, while iron foundries, mills and the mirror factories helped build Irwin into a booming town putting it firmly on the map. The modern population hovers near the 4,000 resident mark.

  If there is one thing going for Irwin today, they have a good choice in restaurants-the Firepit, Cenacolo and the Arena Sports Grille know how to serve up a meal! The town also does a big Annual Christmas House Tour in December.

   A Piece of Local Heritage

   Brush Hill, the former Scull House was named for John Irwin Scull who married his daughter, Mary and became the founder of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This historic mansion was first built in 1798. Incorporating the once popular Federal Era type architecture, the structure itself said to be made of fieldstone and sandstone. The particular style used associates the site with classicism of Regency, (late Georgian), and french Empire architecture closely connected to ideals of the early American republic which derived much of its founding aspirations from ancient Greece and Rome. For those with more than a casual interest, famous architects of the style included Benjamin Latrobe, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Bulfinch. In the 1950's the place was upgraded from a state of disrepair by a denist, Dr. John Hudson. "Brush Hill" was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

    Later, according to a Tribune-Review article from December of 2007,  Brush Hill house was further restored by owners Don and Dilly Miller. During renovation some archaic finds were made.

 Nearby Indian Paths

   More particular material may be found at As the good Reverend further related, the township was conveniently crossed through with the four important Indian trails of Nemacolin at Circleville running to the Mon river eastward and then south to Scottdale and on through Dunbar's Gap to the Great Meadows; the Allegheny-Laurel Hill Trail which in the east found it's origin at old Shannopin's Town traveling west near the Allegheny River through Pittsburgh to Ligonier and to Bedford, which he correctly explains was the basic route of Forbes' army in the eventful year of 1758.

   Then there are the lesser trails through New Florence and the Ligonier Valley southward and a trail north of New Kensington heading to the Juniata and on to the Susquehanna river system. Of course, later this was on the "great road" of the Lincoln Highway and a part of the first railroad, the Pennsylvania R x R, in fact.

  Colonel John Irwin

    Saving information that may well be the best for last, the founder of the town was John Irwin, born to James and Jane Irwin in 1811. Through the inheritance of his father's lands he soon became a leading merchant and the most prominent member of the early community.

    Colonel John Irwin was born in Ireland in 1740 and arrived in the colonies in the year 1762. The gentleman in question was known to be at Fort Pitt in 1766, while he may of seen some action there as he was the army's Chief Commisary Officer and was stationed here for a time. After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, an early settler of Westmoreland County, he made the purchase of the Brush Hill tract at the mouth of Bushy Run to the south near Fort Walthour. He then proceeded to build a cabin near the 'Scull House' to the east of Irwin later occupied by his grandson. While there, he became a trader, mostly in the lucrative fur market with the nearby Indian folk. It was also burned by the Indian raids in 1782.

  Finally, John lived in a stone house near the year 1792 and took up permanent residence after his other establishments had burned to the ground. In spite of these conditions he was the Deputy Commissioner for the Western Divison of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, naturally a proud reminder of the origins of this location. By 1821, in infirm health, he resigned his illustrious position as Associate Justice of Westmoreland County and died in 1822.

   It was the colonel's nephew of the same name that founded the borough of Irwin.

   In 1783, his brother James came to America and joined John in this region and created what was to become Jacktown or Jacksonville. By the creation and opening of the Pittsbugh and Greensburg Road, the place gained advantages as a stagecoach stop and developed a sense of early business, and by becoming a toll road in 1816, the boom of progress slowly, yet inexorably began.

  Thus we have noted another part of our exciting Fayette/Westmoreland history.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Uncovering Uniontown Part 1: A Princess In Uniontown


   This post is Part One of a planned series on Uniontown, the county seat of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. 

   Instead of accessing and addressing the large volume of information and much of the routine, though meaningful material tirelessly researched, and then adding my own insights on various aspects of the old city, we will be examining what I feel are the more fascinating historical subjects in reasonably sized installments. Hopefully this will be appropriate in avoiding overly large articles with many chunks of data stretching endlessly to the bottom of the page and help hold the visitor's interest more easily.

   A Princess In Uniontown, really?

   Yes, indeed there was... once upon a time.

   Read on for this exciting true story:

   Princess Lida of Thurn and Taxis, as she became known, was not born a princess. Her life spanned the years 1875-1965. She was an American heiress and socialite and was later considered a bit on the controversial side, especially when it came to lawsuits and the actions as well as some of the personal dealings of her sons.

   Her husband was Prince Victor, 1976-1928, whom she married on November 1, or as some accounts have it, on Nov. 2nd in the year 1911. (These facts are verified partly according to the New York Times, Feb. 16, 1914 and other articles).

    Through her first marriage she became Mrs. Gerald Fitzgerald, but her birth name was Lida Eleanor Nichols of Uniontown, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Her first husband was Gerald Percival Fitzgerald of Ireland whom she met in 1899. When he moved to Fayette County he set up the small town of Shamrock, near New Salem in Menallen Township. They later divorced in 1906 with Lida receiving a large alimony settlement from Parliament to make the arrangements of the final separation legal.  In her rather humbler beginnings, this lady was the daughter of a grocer, John Nichols, and his wife Lenora.

     Lida Eleanor Nichols, later to become the illustrious Princess Lida, was the niece of Joseph V. Thompson, a big banker and coal operator of his time.

     Her second husband's full name was, according to the new princess, 'Victor Theodore Maximilian Egon Maria Lamoral.'  This was the identifying name she showed proof of in court when she went to London to sue Josephine Moffat, a New York showgirl pretending to royalty as "Her Royal Highness Josephine", who wrongly claimed the title of Princess of Thurn and Taxis. These kinds of happenings were great fodder in the heady days of the early twentieth century, and all the more so since this woman was a phony, pure and simple, losing the injunction to the real Princess with a penalty of $500.


    The region of Thurn and Taxis actually has a board game named after it! The princely coat of arms shows two red dragons and two castles; this certainly makes plenty of sense in representing two cities; it also show an animal, possibly a badger, in the middle. Sorry, no armorial lingo is being included here.

   Some Historical Background on Thurn and Taxis

     The capital of the district was the once Imperial city Regensberg of Bavaria, once a sovereign principality before 1806 and losing its noble status after the fall of the German Empire in 1918. They were also Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Catholic order of chivalry founded in 1430. The order still exists in two branches, Spanish and Austrian. It appears the historic style of the title for the prince is "His Serene Highness." Quite impressive. Would this mean Lida's title was "Her Serene Highness"?

   Except for a minimal amount of time for the most part, she moved to the Austrian Republic to be with her husband in Europe and only returned for a while when Prince Victor became an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army at the start of World War One and headed back to Europe by 1920. Following the death of Prince Victor in Vienna, she spent her time alternating between her residences in New York City, Uniontown and in Europe.


   While residing in Uniontown her home, shown above, was at the corner of South Mount Vernon Avenue and West Main Street. She died in New York at the age of 90 on December 6, 1965. Most of her art, antiques and valuables were sold at auction in 1966.

    I'll be back soon with another post on our amazing, and sometimes, illustrious history.

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